|By Sara K. Clarke, Orlando
SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 21, 2012--Demand for hotel rooms in the Orlando area was essentially flat last month compared with a year earlier, though continued signs of economic recovery peeked through as hoteliers continued to raise their prices.
Hotels in the Orlando market filled 76.4 percent of their rooms in July, compared with 77.5 percent during the same month last year, while the average daily rate was up 4.2 percent to $91.43 from a year ago, according to survey data released Monday by Smith Travel Research.
The uptick in price, also seen nationwide, is a sign that the U.S. economy is recovering, said Scott Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in lodging.
"If there's a story here, it's that hoteliers feel comfortable in pushing up the rates," said Smith, who is not affiliated with Smith Travel, the Tennessee company that surveys hotel markets across the country.
"Their collective intelligence is telling me the economy is starting to come back. This is a good sign," he added.
July in Orlando is a particularly good gauge of economic sentiment because it is a prime season for leisure travel. Vacations, often impulse purchases, are booked on relatively short notice compared with corporate events and industry conventions.
"It's the truest, closest to real-time information you can get," Smith said.
Economy-priced hotels reported the strongest growth of all price segments in the Orlando market during July, filling more of their rooms while simultaneously increasing prices by 8.3 percent. Geographically, the West Kissimmee submarket, which includes Reunion Resort, posted the strongest growth compared with a year ago, as it filled nearly three of every four rooms and raised its average rate by 10.1 percent. (Disney World hotels are not included in Smith Travel's surveys.)
Still, the true measure of success in the hotel industry will be when lodging establishments attain the employment levels that existed before the Great Recession caused businesses to lay off workers.
"This is the start of the journey back up," Smith said. "The true finish line is when hotel staffing returns to pre-recession levels."
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